Collapsing Scenery and Colum McCann Talk Protest Music, and Protesting in General

The Irish author and the industrial-leaning duo have a meeting of the minds.

Collapsing Scenery is the project of Don Devore and Reggie Debris (aka, Maroon 5’s Mickey Madden); Colum McCann is an author of literary fiction whose work has been published by, among many publications, the New Yorker and the Paris Review. To celebrate the release of Collapsing Scenery’s new album Stress Positionsout now — the three sat down to talk about protesting and the necessity of making political art. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor

Colum McCann: Do you guys think you’re a literary band? 

Mickey Madden: To an extent. The lyrics are heavily researched and looked over. I like them to stand on their own apart from the music, kind of standalone poems as much as possible. Obviously, it’s a different approach to writing, lyrics and poetry, like in the sense that you have to work within the confines of a melody and certain things just sound better sung than written and vice versa. But on the whole, I like the words to stand alone as much as possible. 

Colum: Do the words come first?

Mickey: It varies, actually.

Don Devore: All over the place, really.

Mickey: When we started, I had a pile of lyrics. 

Don: Your pile of lyrics got me real stoked. I remember calling you, and you were like, “Don, I have lyrics, I’m ready to send them.” And this is after years of talking about it. As much as we’re a literary or political band, or a band about perceptions, I find it hard to piecemeal them apart into separate entities.

Mickey: Compared with other bands, a lot of the ideas for the songs are refined through reading or inspired by things I’ve read and usually there’s a big research component of digging and trying to draw parallels between contemporary political issues and literary corollaries or myths.

Don: I find that there’s very few artists where you know that it’s about something. I dare you to tell me what one Coldplay song is about. [Laughs.]

Mickey: Yeah, there’s no leaving it up to chance. I want the words to sound good, for sure, but it’s more important that they mean something.

Colum: Let’s talk about some of the songs, like “Metaphysical Cops.” “You can’t stumble when you’re down on your knees.” Where does a lyric like that come from? 

Mickey: I saw that somewhere online. I think it was posted on the placard outside of a church, and someone had pointed out the obvious irony of it because it sounds super sexual, right? [Laughs.] I found it so funny and such a great ironic term. But writing a song that draws a parallel between religious supplication and sex is a sort of active, a kind of holy rebellion, and that just perfectly threads those two themes together. 

Colum: Sex and faith and politics. There’s that Colin Kaepernick sort of notion going on, too.  You can’t stumble when you’re on your knees.

Mickey: I hadn’t thought about that. I’m not dismissing the idea of supplication as a powerful act. I do think that a physical act of humility can be really powerful in that way. But I think that often religion, as it’s organized, ignores more powerful forms of supplication and humility. For example, the kinds of non-violent protests we associate with civil rights has a lot of that aspect to it. Religion has often ignored a lot of those kinds of expressions of humility and supplication in an act of rebellion. 

Colum: Can you both talk about “Sisyphus of the Negev?” You were both together in Palestine, right? 

Mickey: Don and I went to Israel/Palestine in 2012. In a week of pretty powerful, intense encounters I think that the experience that we had in Negev probably left the strongest impression on us.

Don: Their situation in the southern desert —

Mickey: This is not disputed territory, really. These are Israeli citizens.

Don: And so despite them not being able to build new structures without them immediately being bulldozed, one of the things I remember is the general attitudes of having people interested to be aware of what’s going on from their perspective. I remember one guy was really excited to point out one goat who had this pampered haircut, and he was like, “That’s our goat artist.” And this was his way of connecting with us, which was adorable.

They’d moved onto the sort of the graveyard they’ve had for who knows how many years. It’s the only place where they could feel safe. All these subjects require such in depth analysis and review, especially when you’ve been there and you have that experience. One thing we talked about all the time was, How do you even get to communicate these feelings in a world that has such intense feelings on the matter? Left, right, center? And one way is songs. I’m not too easily  flustered with things. The gravity of the whole thing really comes into some context when you can have the weight of each side immediately on you.

Colum: I love that song, and I think I think it combines all sorts of energy. But it’s also a brave moment for a band to step into that sort of debate, knowing that you’re going to get shrapnel coming, probably from all sides. Yet you’re still trying to communicate something there, and so this political angle dovetails wonderfully with the literary angle which becomes part of the outsider art angle. You have to be pretty brave to go forward with a piece of music like that. 

Mickey: I appreciate that. I have an issue with that terminology of courage and stuff when it comes to art, because in many ways, artists tend to, even if you take flack for certain things, be rewarded for taking a stance on something. It’s a privilege to be able to talk about these things and not put our bodily lives in danger. 

Colum: But still you’re doing it.

Mickey: There’s a feeling of sort of impotent rage, frustration, and heartbreak when you see really obvious injustice so close to your face, and particularly with people who have not been given a platform and whose stories are not widely known. And an easy reaction to a lot of American artists taking on issues that seem far away from them is to merely point out that we are far from having our own house in order. But part of the reason that we’ve been talking about things through these songs is that they are very much American issues. I think part of the reason that that were drawn to Israel/Palestine in particular is because this is the result of so much American machination and policy and engineering, and that this is far from being a far-flung issue.

Don: There’s a certain humility to us just doing our songs compared to the actual real life scenarios these people are living.

Mickey: It’s a luxury to be able to go back to our comfortable lives and try to put these things into poetic terms. There’s an argument that I’m sympathetic to, that it’s almost perverse to make art out of horrible circumstances. I obviously feel differently. In my more cynical moments it’s easy to see the vulgarity in trying to tell stories for people less fortunate who live far away. But it also does feel, in my less cynical moments, like it’s something we have to do. 

Colum: There is that great line from the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout. “If you speak, you die; if you keep quiet, you die; so speak and die.” If you sit around and do nothing then are you becoming even more complicit? But I want to turn to the idea that you also have a lot of fun with a lot of your lyrics. I don’t want to give people the impression that your songs are not fun. You go to the edge. Do you know that Kurt Vonnegut quote that we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down? It does seem to me that you guys are pushing yourself towards an edge. Are you conscious of that?

Don: I think probably one of the healthy things about the relationship is that without question, it’s part of the therapy. Part of the humility I find is continually pushing as hard as possible and not taking advantage of that feeling of being back here.

Mickey: It is a physically taxing thing from even just from constructing a rig to the stage and — 

Don: Keeping that genuine is a real issue. We went back and forth for a long time trying to figure out how to present this and feel genuine about it. I don’t think you would have seen a song like that out of us if we were never there.

Mickey: We want it to feel earned to some extent, in terms of what we hope to get from people and what we hope to talk about. We don’t want to come at anything casually. Also there’s simply a matter of respect for an audience; we want everything to feel thought-through and considered. And just in the same way that when we come into a room to play in front of people we’re gonna really focus on the visual element and not leave anything to chance in that regard. Asking people to come out from their lives and watch you play music, that in and of itself deserves respect. People deserve to be immersed in something.

Don: Fortunately, we didn’t apply any of the ideas I had while we were there. Because I was on fire with architectural punk plans. [Laughs.] 

Colum: How often are you guys doing gigs these days?

Mickey: As often as we can. A couple times a month on average, between LA and New York. 

Don: We’ve been able to travel a bit. This week, we’re up in Vancouver and Portland and Seattle and San Francisco, which is exciting, first time in most of those places. For the venues we’re playing, we’re self sufficient. We basically use the power of a venue, and then we can present, regardless of equipment. 

Mickey: We’re very self contained in that sense, kind of set up to play anywhere.

Don: Which scares venues. But at the same time, once they understand, it just means they have the night off. We just plug in. About halfway through they realize, “Oh, yeah, you don’t need any of us.” [Laughs.]

Colum: Talk to me about the analog nature of things and then pushing the electronic boundaries and asking new things of yourselves.

Don: Before we even started the project, Mickey and I had spoken for years about the various ways this could happen, and I made little maps. Growing up, playing guitars and basses and various things, the idea of having a laptop and hitting play was anti-music. So I wanted to use these instruments where it feels like playing guitar. If you’re creating on the spot as much as you would on any other instrument, stringed or otherwise, that takes time.

Mickey: There was a lot of learning because the gear was so new to us. And just forcing ourselves into a position of naivete as far as the instrumentation was good for creativity because there were inherent limits, and we were discovering new things every time we played. So there is that element of discovery that you can hear on the tape. Because we didn’t have any preconceptions about how things were supposed to work, we ended up recording in a pretty unconventional way. For the first round of recordings we did on a ranch in Texas, all the electronics were running through amps, and the amps were mic-ed as they would be if they were guitar amps and bass amps. And we’d run the sensor sequencers and play along with a live drummer. It was a really unconventional, unusual way to play.

Don: There’s a whole digital-analog debate as well. But as much as the sound, it’s the process of how you do it analog, there’s more steps. There’s more fingers. There’s more buttons. There’s more chance to run across something. 

Mickey: Even with sequencers that we’re running, like the drum tracks, there’s some freedom. They’re not exactly on a grid, there’s a lot of wobbling around, especially when we add live drums. There’s more variability in our recordings than in a lot of electronic music. And I personally like that kind of pushing, pulling, queasy… It has an unsettled feeling that I really respond to.

Colum: I would like to know how you two guys got together. 

Don: I grew up in Philadelphia playing in various punk bands. Moved to Los Angeles in 2003. And we actually met in London?

Mickey: We met in LA initially. Don had joined a band from LA of some notoriety called the Icarus Line. We got along off the bat, and ended up by chance in London at the same time. And that’s when we really, really clicked, at the famous Columbia Hotel.

Don: Which we had keys for, so every subsequent trip back, you could flash a key and get a free cheese sandwich and a pint, even though you’re staying in 17, not 5. That hustle worked for a while.

Mickey: And then, over the years, we talked about working on something together because we were really in sync in terms of music.

Don: We did various projects but nothing that was concentrated or thought through. 

At a certain point, playing with other people can be a real nightmare — some of my least favorite people in the world I’ve been in bands with.

Mickey: What tends to break bands up and cause all kinds of unnecessary conflict is really just ego, which I think is true of any artistic endeavor. But one of the things that’s so functional about us is there’s a good overlap in the Venn diagram of what we can do together, but there are areas that are clearly Don’s turf and areas that are mine. When they come together, it’s a symbiotic thing. 

Because the band really started with wanting to do something that was electronic, where we were playing instruments that were not our main instruments, guitar and bass, and then making a political project. But otherwise we didn’t really know what form it would take. I certainly didn’t know that I was gonna be singing off the bat. And Don was very instrumental in encouraging me do that, which I’m really grateful for.

Don: That and some tequila.

Mickey: That does loosen the old inhibitions. When we started playing there was still a lot of stuff we hadn’t figured out; there was this natural process of discovery that happened and it still feels that way in a lot of ways. Our first live performances weren’t even really shows —

Don: More video installations in art galleries with various components of the “Metaphysical Cops” video on different stages. And then we’d perform for several hours.

Mickey: Doing kind of a live remix.

Don: The second time we did that, I think we were invited to do it in an abandoned pharmacy at Art Basel in Miami, before we had even performed. So even that felt as if we were sort of paying dues on our way to being able to perform.

Mickey: We actually hired this band the first couple of performances that generally plays weddings and parties, and had them learn our songs the way that they would any others. So we actually heard our songs played by this band. [Laughs.] What were they called?

Don: They reached out to me a couple times when they were learning the songs like, we can’t learn this one because it’s not in tune. I was like, Whoa, whoa, whoa. There’s no rules. Simply tune to it.

Mickey: We gave them a playlist of covers to learn as well. It was wild. But it took a long time for us to figure out exactly how the show was gonna go, and what that was gonna look like. 

Colum: Can you tell me where the name Collapsing Scenery came from?

Mickey: I can’t remember the exact essay… It was a perfect term to evoke this idea of fiddling while Rome burns. Us all being actors on stage trying to carry on a show while the scenery just falls down around us. There’s more awareness now of certain political realities that we would describe as emergencies. I think obviously the Trump election and the rise of right wing populism has awakened a lot of people on the left to the realities of these things. And now there’s a pretty active and outraged vocal movement, sort of shaming those of us in our generation and older for ignoring the disaster we’ve bequeathed upon kids as far as the climate is concerned.

Don: That notion captures a lot of what the band is about. I felt an urgent need to do a political band because I felt like a lot of people from our political persuasion, the left, which now seems to be reconstituting itself, didn’t seem to express the outrage that fit the mood of the times. And I think if there’s any silver lining to the rise of the right wing populists, it’s that it has at least awakened people to realities that have been building for a long time, including under Obama. I think that the center-left owns a lot of these disasters by trying to equivocate and find some middle ground that just doesn’t exist. The name basically came from that. That feeling that we’re sort of standing on a stage and carrying out a play as if everything was normal. And meanwhile, the fuckin’ facade is falling down behind you and kicking up quite a bit of dust. 

Colum: You seem to be working with other bands more and more.

Don: Ninja Man in Jamaica — he was a good example of someone we worked with that we found his lyrics were more politically charged. We’ve worked with 20 or 30 different people.

Mickey: If we’re gonna collaborate with someone, it has to be an aesthetic fit, but also it has to be someone who could do something that we can’t do. One of the motivating forces behind this band is incorporating a lot of influences that we haven’t been able to express in previous projects. And we would bring in, like, a grime emcee. And for a song about the refugee crisis and particularly as it relates to the Middle East, DAM was a natural fit. That’s something that lends a lot of weight to that song because there’s only so much I can say trying to give voice to this outrage that I feel. 

Don: At the end of “New World Borders,” when they start in English, and the last verse they’re like, fuck it, and switch to Arabic, I think is really telling.

Colum: Originally, who was Reggie Debris?

Mickey: The name I took was from Regis Debray, who was  a French left wing intellectual who went and fought with Che in Bolivia and someone whose writing I really I liked. And someone who also is a good example of a kind of lost style of intellectual, in the old mold of people who actually go and put themselves on the front lines of the things that they’re writing and talking about. There’s a lot of justified criticism of the Ivory Tower kind of political theorizing. And I think there used to be a sort of intellectual character that went there and got their hands very dirty, and it’s sort of a nostalgia for that. And the name worked as a good pun.

Colum: Was that a cloak as well? Was there a certain stage where you didn’t wanna say, “Hey, I’m Mickey Madden and I’m doing this band?”

Mickey: It’s never been a matter of cloaking, more of a matter of establishing a sort of separate domain, sort of drawing a line around this project in the way.

Colum: Has that been a difficulty in any way?

Don: No, I don’t think so. It’s only been really very fortunate and positive. I think like Mickey was saying, this anonymity is nice for having a sort of uncorrupted experience. Focusing in on it without distractions, which is kind of a goal. It’s in line with that conciseness we’ve been talking about.

Colum: Don, can you talk about your own relationship to politics, literary theory, music — how these things all get woven together? 

Don: When I was, like, 17 I was shoeless and volunteered at the first anarchist bookstore, the Wooden Shoe in Philadelphia. I was an Industrial Workers of the World, IWW, member of about 22,000 in the ‘90s, down from a million in 1910. A lot of the music I was interested in would have been the more literary side of the punk hardcore, not in your resistance model but more sharpening all your tools. Not getting out of responsibility, but how to take more responsibility through protests, through lyrics, through a lifestyle.

From the artist’s perspective, it’s where the jolt’s always been for me and I think Mickey too. And we’ve always had different outlets up until this. You would never get together an artist or a musician and be like, “All right, we’re gonna do this strictly political band.” If it wasn’t genuine, it would instantly fall apart.

Mickey: I think there was a reckoning among a lot of people who are center-left and even full-on leftists that we allowed a lot of horrible things to happen on our watch, and didn’t have the sense of urgency and panic that was necessary for the moment. We ignored a lot of trends that were easy to ignore. And I think that definitely has motivated a lot of the protest culture that’s arisen in the last few years. 

Don: I mean, 2,000,000 people in Hong Kong this week —

Mickey: Hong Kong is a great example because a huge percentage of the population have been in these protests because this is an issue that they feel directly. In our parents’ generation, the Vietnam War protests, the draft was a factor in that. And not to discount the sheer number of people that showed up to oppose Iraq, but I think part of the reason those protests didn’t have the political impact that the Vietnam protests did was because the stakes were different for people whose lives aren’t necessarily at risk of going to war. And now, people are standing up for things that don’t necessarily affect them directly. That is a very positive development. I think part of the way that our system has functioned to keep the elites in power was through keeping people as comfortable and entertained and disengaged as possible. There’s a recognition now that you can’t turn away from the real human suffering that our system is causing.

Colum: Do you get scared sometimes that you’re preaching to the converted? How do you get across to the other side, or is that your goal at all?

Don: I hope we can talk to all sorts of people, but the channels open through the converted. 

Mickey: I think a lot of artists run that risk. At a certain point you just have to do what you do, and you can’t cater to people. There is a famously toxic right-wing element in industrial culture, across the world. And there’s a nasty stream in the punk communities as well, kind of libertarian, right-wing currents that exist in punk. So on some level, were musically equipped to reach across those divides. Whether we can change any minds or not is another story. But hopefully we can speak directly to some of those people. But your first responsibility is to tend to your vision. We’re certainly not afraid of going into any spaces or having these conversations at all. 

Colum: That’s incredibly important. But your first responsibility is to yourselves and to the music. It has become part of the conversation.

Mickey: Of course. I’m curious to know how you encounter this as a writer. You’re talking about people who are outside of your own experience often and you have responsibilities to your own vision and then responsibilities in broader communities. And then you can expect certain reactions, but you can’t necessarily avoid them or prepare for them or let them hinder you.

Colum: I think I write the sort of books that I want to read and the sort of books that I won’t be embarrassed by 10 years down the line. I do want them to get out there, partly because I need to put bread on the table, but partly because I’m interested in muddying things up. I think one of the real problems in America right now is we’ve forgotten how wonderfully complicated we are. Everyone’s trying to make things easy. We’re never as stupid as our political parties want us to be. And then the function of good literature, the function of good music, is to kick up the dust a bit, collapse the scenery, if you will. Walt Whitman had that great, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” And this country contains multitudes, but so many artists out there are trying a simple angle.

Mickey: Any community of artists is susceptible to a certain kind of groupthink. There is a certain kind of doctrinaire worldview that you encounter, especially in these urban coastal cities that we occupy. I think it’s true that any politics that I’m interested in is one that allows for the fullest flourishing of human freedom and that includes a wide array of type and belief. And the questions we’re having around free speech and de-monetizing and whatnot is asking is at what point did someone’s speech cross the line into harm and threat and what we would all agree is antisocial? Those are definitely important conversations to have. And we’re seeing people who have been excluded from those conversations finally part of them. That’s important. And I think  people in our position could do well to listen to a lot of that. The risk you run, of course, is creating an atmosphere of sort of lock-step conformity. In general, the movement’s in the right direction, which is that there are many more voices being heard and consulted than have been in the past.

Colum: Do you guys have fun?

Don: Absolutely. I’ve never felt like I had a choice as far as being an artist. Being able to do that is a really incredible thing. Plus, part of the fun is you’re not actually liable to anyone. And part of me wants to burn this motherfucker down half the time, and that’s OK. That’s part of what I want to feel. Sometimes I’m playing and I want to kick a hole in the wall, and it’s actually a positive thing.

Colum: You bring this energy, this fucking crazy intensity. But I also get the sense that though there’s a lot of anger there, you two are having fun.

Mickey: We’re extremely lucky that there is a very cathartic element to everything we do, be it in the studio or live. It does feel, as Don has been saying, therapeutic, but I think that’s the world that we want to see. We want to make a world where there’s more opportunity for joy and freedom and liberation and self expression. People have a suspicion of art when it becomes too heavily monetized and too corporate and sanitized — and great art can come in many forms and many packages — but I think ultimately one of its few uses is to show the world what’s possible.

(Photo Credit: right, Dustin Aksland)

Collapsing Scenery is the meeting of two fertile and febrile minds, Don De Vore (Ink & Dagger, Lilys, The Icarus Line, Amazing Baby) and Reggie Debris. Together they straddle the gap between music, art, film, and politics, seamlessly moving between each with the same ease at which they traverse the globe, soaking up experiences and immersing themselves in different cultures.

Since they formed in 2013 “under a pall of paranoia and disgust” they haven’t stopped moving. They’ve recently collaborated with Jamaican dancehall legend Ninjaman, Beastie Boys producer/collaborator Money Mark, and no-wave pioneer James Chance. The band also has remixes out or on the way from Genesis P-Orridge (Psychic TV, Throbbing Gristle), Jennifer Herrema (Royal Trux), Uniform, Youth Code, Brian DeGraw (Gang Gang Dance), Oliver, and more.

Their forthcoming debut album Stress Positions is a glorious collision of futurist electro, glacial goth tones, techno, post-punk and chillwave recorded using analogue electronics: samplers, step sequencers, synths and drum machines.

Collapsing Scenery are artistic explorers pushing into bold new futures, then. Join them.